FROM CC:M | Protecting Salem’s children with Vanessa Nordyke

Standing in front of Salem’s YMCA on a blustery April morning, one might not notice anything outside of the ordinary. But rows of blocked-off parking, police escorts and a bin full of blue pinwheels blowing in the wind reveal something deeper is going on in Marion County. 

Community partners work together on the Marion County Child Abuse Prevention Committee and are holding events throughout April to bring awareness to the issue. A week ago, April 7, was the committee’s annual Child Abuse Prevention Car Parade. 

Folks stopped to curiously ask what the hubbub was about as cars rolled in to return their pinwheels. When one found out it was a parade for child abuse prevention month, he immediately asked if there was somewhere he could donate to, paused, and then said, “Once upon a time, I was a victim of child abuse.” 

Child abuse is far more prevalent than many people think and its effect last far longer than some may assume. 

A 2021 study from the Oregon Department of Human Services reported, “There were 10,766 reported victims of child abuse and neglect in Oregon, of which 1,094 were victims in Marion County.”  That same report states that on average, 5,665 children were in foster care across the state of Oregon.

VIDEO: Vanessa Nordyke

This is where CASA and Vanessa Nordyke come in.

Vanessa Nordyke is the executive director of CASA of Marion County, a role she stepped into in early 2023. The mission of CASA is to train volunteers to advocate for and support children living in the foster care system. Volunteers are a consistent presence for the children, advocating directly for their needs.

“They’re supposed to have minor worries and concerns, like, ‘Did I remember to complete my homework? Did I remember to grab my trumpet for band practice?'”

–Vanessa Nordyke, CASA of Marion County executive director

Nordyke was born and raised in Salem and attended Salem-Keizer Public Schools where she quickly learned that she was different from the other children around her. Nordyke became mysteriously and severely ill as a child, which resulted in a loss of hearing in one of her ears. 

“I learned pretty early on that I’m living on borrowed time,” Nordyke says. “When people see me running around doing all kinds of things, it’s because I’m really trying to pack three lifetimes into one.” 

She and other children with disabilities, visible and hidden, rode to school every day on the “short bus.” On the bus, she couldn’t communicate with the children who knew ASL, and she didn’t feel like she belonged when she got off the bus, either. 

The experience taught her that it was okay to be different. She encourages others to find their spark of individuality and let it motivate them. Nordyke is also a mental health advocate and uses her background to help people prioritize their own mental health, whether that’s within the legal field or with the children that CASA serves.

Her mentality of perseverance is why she chose to enter a field where she could serve others, whether that be working as an attorney for the Department of Justice, being a staffer for Puerto Rico’s first female governor, Sila María Calderón, or organizing awareness campaigns for child abuse prevention. 

Political organizing taught Nordyke how strong her work ethic is. “If you think, you know, studying many hours at a place like Georgetown is tough, that’s nothing compared to knocking on doors in the American Southwest and asking people to vote.”

Nordyke attended the University of Oregon for two years before transferring to Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. She returned to Oregon to attend law school, deciding to focus on the work needed in the town she grew up in instead of pursuing an international career. 

“Rather than foist my opinions and my culture on others, how can I help the folks that I understand? How can I help the folks who I will be able to see those tangible differences every single day? And that’s what we do at CASA.”

The mission of CASA, which stands for court-appointed special advocate, is to match trained volunteers with children living in the foster care system. CASA volunteers are directly asked by judges or case workers about what a child may need, giving them the opportunity to make a tangible difference in the child’s life. 

Advocates are assigned early on in cases and remain on the case until the child is placed in a safe and permanent home. Many advocates have relationships with the children they serve well into their adulthood. 

“At CASA, we get to intervene early and be that voice for those children,” Nordyke says. CASA volunteers act as legal representatives for the children and are often the only ones asking the children directly how they are or what they need. 

Children may be removed from their homes for a variety of reasons, ranging from abuse and neglect to a parent serving time in jail. “One way or another, these kiddos deserve a second chance. They deserve to live a life of meaning just like I do,” says Nordyke. 

Volunteers are the lifeblood of CASA, without whom the program would not exist at all, Nordyke says. “At CASA, they are the backbone of the organization.”

The Marion County Child Abuse Prevention Committee has decorated Salem’s Riverfront Park with blue ribbons, placed blue pinwheels in government buildings and put blue lights on Salem’s police station. It’s a visible show of support for some of Salem’s most under-protected community members.  

For community members looking to better support and advocate for children, Nordyke recommends getting to know children on a personal level as safe people in their lives so it’s evident if the child’s behaviors change. 

“If you have a relationship with one child, if you are a stable and constant and positive presence in one child’s life, you have done your part,” Nordyke says. “You don’t understand the power of four little words: “I believe in you.” If you can do that, you can save someone’s life.”

Stories of Salem is a production of Capital Community Media and shared in collaboration with Salem Reporter. Learn more about CC:M HERE.

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By Meghan Jonas and Ashley Jackson Lawrence – Capital Community Media